One of the two main branches of Islam, the other being the sunnites.
The initial Arabic phrase shi'atu 'Ali, "Partisans of Ali," was used to refer to a number of early Muslims who backed Ali ibn Abi Talib (the cousin of the Prophet muḤammad to whom his daughter Fatima was married) in the matter of the succession of the Prophet. The Shi’a claim that the Prophet appointed Ali as his successor, an important act which the community ignored by recognizing Abu Bakr as the first caliph (Arabic "khalifah," i.e., "successor"), 'Umar I as the second, and 'Uthman as the third. Upon the murder of 'Uthman, Ali was invited to be the fourth caliph (35–40 a.h., 656–661 a.d.). His appointment only resulted in increased tension between his supporters and his detractors, leading to the first civil war within the Islamic community that ultimately gave rise to the division of Islam into the Shi’a and Sunni branches.
Shi’a Islam is distinguished from Sunni Islam mainly in its interpretation of the role of the imam in the Islamic social order. The essential distinction between Shi’a and Sunni Islam is the doctrine of the imamate, which is essential for all Shi’a. The Shi’a believe that the human race needs divinely guided leaders and teachers, who are the imams who continue the mission of the prophets in every respect, except bringing new scriptures. The imams are endowed with 'isma, i.e., immunity from sin and error
in order to fulfill their divine mission. All Shi’a believe that without the imams the world would cease to exist, yet they are divided over the question of the number of the imams, leading to the emergence of different branches within Shi’a Islam.
Twelver Shi’a. The Twelver Shi’a, Ithna 'Ashariya, or Imamiyah, constitute the largest group within the Shi’a, and believe in the following 12 Imams:
- 'Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. a.h. 40/661 a.d.)
- Hasan ibn 'Ali (d. a.h. 49/669 a.d.)
- Husayn ibn 'Ali (d. a.h. 60/680 a.d.)
- 'Ali ibn al-Husayn, Zayn al-‘Abidin (d. a.h. 95/714 a.d.)
- Muhammad al-Baqir (d. a.h. 115/733 a.d.)
- Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. a.h. 148/765 a.d.)
- Musa al-Kazim (d. a.h. 183/799 a.d.)
- 'Ali al-Rida (d. a.h. 203/818 a.d.)
- Muḥammad Jawad al-Taqi (d. a.h. 220/835 a.d.)
- 'Ali al-Naqi (d. a.h. 254/868 a.d.)
- Al-Hasan al-‘Askari (d. a.h. 260/874 a.d.)
- Muhammad al-Mahdi, al-Qa’im (major occultation in a.h. 329/941 a.d.)
For the Twelvers, the imam possesses a divine light which guides him in interpretation and legislation. The shrines of the imams, especially that of Imam Hussain in Karbala (Iraq), Imam Ali in Najaf (Iraq), and Imam Rida in Mashhad (Iran) are pilgrimage sites. The imams are not only the religious teachers, they also have an eschatological significance, for they can intercede for believers on Judgment Day. Therefore, knowing the imam is necessary for salvation. This point is especially emphasized by the messianic belief in the hidden imam, Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi, who is alive and in occultation. Beginning in 872 a.d. and during the minor occultation the imam would communicate with his followers through four direct representatives from among them. Since 941, he has been in major occultation and will only reappear when the world is filled with injustice and oppression in order to establish justice and to prepare the second coming of Christ. This messianism within Shi’a doctrine has revealed itself in both political and non-political forms, leading at times to quietism and at others to activism.
While the Twelvers have their own distinct school of law founded by the sixth Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. a.h 148/765 a.d.) (hence called the Ja’fari school), it is considered as the same sacred law; shari’ah with little difference in matters of ritual worship from any of the four major Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In matters of transactions the difference can be summarized in the Shi‘i acceptance of temporary marriage (mut’a ) as well as an additional tax (khums ) to the regular religious tax (zakat ). Also important in Shi’a doctrine are the principles of justice (‘adl ) and intellect (‘aql ). The latter plays a significant role, not only in their attitude towards intellectual sciences, but also in the continuous reinterpretation of the law and the ongoing task of Ijtihad, independent analysis, that remains open within Shi’a Islam. In contrast, after the establishment of the four Sunni schools of law a thousand years ago, the gates of Ijtihad within the Sunni world were considered closed.
Isma’ilis. It is to Isma’il the son of Ja’far al Sadiq that the Isma’ilis trace their line. As the elder son of the Imam, Isma’il was his designated successor, but he predeceased him. Those who viewed this designation irreversible either denied the death of Isma’il proclaiming his return as the Qaim (this group was later known as 'pure Isma’iliya') or accepted his son Muhammad as the rightful imam after Ja’far (known at the time as Mubarakiyah). The two groups came to hold Muhammad ibn Isma’il as the legitimate Imam in the absence of Isma’il. It was not until the middle of the ninth century that the Isma’iliya appeared as a well organized, secret movement with revolutionary principles and elaborate doctrine. There is little certainty about the early history of the Isma’ilies since the available sources are with few exceptions anti-Isma’ili.
The Isma’ili doctrine can be identified as possessing a gnostic nature with a structure that maintains emphasis on a distinction between the outer, exoteric (zahir ) or the acessible meaning of the scriptures and the religious law brought by the prophets and the inner, esoteric (batin ) of religion which are unchangeable truths hidden in all scriptures and can be revealed by ta’wil, esoteric interpretation. While the Isma’ili groups from early da'wa (Isma’ili missionaries) to the Fatimid dynasty and the Qaramatah movement propagated same aspects of religious doctrine, in political and social matters they cannot be identified with each other. At times appearing as a political movement and at others identifying with mystical elements and coming together with Sufi orders, they were nevertheless, a strong source of activity in arts and sciences. Today, the two branches of Isma’ilis of the Mongol invasion era, the Nizaris and the Musta’lis, continue to live as religious communities in Indo-Pakistani sub-continent, Syria, East Africa, and other regions.
Zaydis. The Zaydis were found mainly in Yemen. Zayd, a grandson of Ali's son Husayn, revolted against umayyad rule at Kufa in 740 a.d. Although the revolt was defeated, his followers kept his memory alive. More than a century later, they established two principalities, one in Tabaristan, which was short-lived, and the other in Yemen, which lasted until the Imam was overthrown in 1962. Among the various Shi’a groups, the Zaydis are the closest to Sunni doctrine and practice, distinguished from the Sunnis by common Shi‘i features such as a distinctive call to prayer, the five-fold funerary prayers, and the rejection of certain minor Sunni practices. Unlike the other Shi’a groups, the Zaydis reject temporary marriages, succession by inheritance, child Imams, and hidden Imams.
Bibliography: m. h. tabataba'i, Shi‘ite Islam, ed. and trans. s. h. nasr (London 1975); Ideals and realities of Islam, 2nd ed. (London 1975); "Ithna 'ashariyya" in The Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden 1960). a. a. sachedina, Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi‘ism (Albany 1981). n. r. keddie, ed., Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi‘ism From Quietism to Revolution (New Haven 1983). d. m. donaldson, The Shi‘ite Religion (London 1933). w. c. chittick, trans. and ed., A Shi‘ite Anthology (Albany 1981). s. a. arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam (Chicago 1984).